Ask Ivor

Morgan asks

about the slaughter of the Canaanites by the Israelites.

The early Christians were clear about their attitude toward war. Clement of Alexandria (c.180): "Christians are not allowed to correct by violence sinful wrongdoings." Origen (c.215): "The Christian lawgiver... nowhere teaches that it is right for his own disciples to offer violence to any one, however wicked." Maximilian (c.295): "I cannot be a soldier. I cannot do evil. I am a Christian." Arnobius (c.300): "We should rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another." Lactantius (c.300): "It can never be lawful for a righteous man to go to war."

In the early 4th century, after 300 years of Christians being an oppressed minority, the Roman emperor Constantine embraced Christianity and urged all his subjects to do likewise. The response was overwhelming. Christianity became respectable and politically correct.

Did Christianity change the Romans, or did the Romans change Christianity? You decide: in 325, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria proclaimed that "to kill one's adversary in war is both lawful and praiseworthy." And in 416, Emperor Theodosius II issued a decree that only Christians could serve in the army!

Now that Christians had wealth and status and property, they were willing to protect it with violence, and to call their actions righteous.

Listen to Pope Urban II, in 1095, calling for the First Crusade: "I pray and exhort, nay not I, but the Lord prays and exhorts you as heralds of Christ... to hasten to exterminate this vile race [the Turks].... The sins of those who set out thither if they lose their lives on the journey by land or sea, or in fighting against the heathen, shall be remitted in that hour; this I grant to all who go, through the power of God vested in me."

Christians today view the medieval crusades as a mistake. What then of the ancient crusade against the Canaanites? Some claim that it was Jesus who introduced the ethic of nonviolence, and that previously violence was acceptable for God's people. This claim is unsatisfactory because it implies that God changed his moral standard.

(It also overlooks the antiviolent teachings that predate Jesus. Jacob criticized the violence of his sons Simeon and Levi: "Their swords are weapons of violence. Let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger." God told King David that he could not build the temple, because, "You are a warrior and have shed blood." Ezra, leading a group of exiles back home through dangerous territory, did not ask King Artaxerxes for the protection of an armed escort, because he believed in God's ability to protect the caravan. The author of the 33rd Psalm likewise teaches the inability of weapons to protect: "No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save.... The Lord; he is our help and our shield." Solomon preached the turning of the other cheek a thousand years earlier than Jesus: "Do not say, 'I'll pay you back for this wrong!' Wait for the Lord, and he will deliver you.... If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink." The image of "beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks," widely used by modern peacemakers, was first set forth by the Old Testament prophets Micah and Isaiah.)

God says, "I hate a man's covering himself with violence" (Mal 2:16), yet he is himself violent. He drowned the whole world with a flood, he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with burning sulfur, he struck down all the firstborn sons of Egypt, he drowned Pharaoh's army in the Red Sea, he caused the earth to open up and swallow the families of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, he used plague to kill 14,700 of the Israelites, and then 24,000 more, and then 185,000 Assyrians one night....

Sometimes, God expected his chosen people to perform his killing for him. The 3000 Israelite calf-worshipers at the foot of Mount Sinai were put to the sword on God's orders, a blasphemer and then a sabbath-breaker were each stoned to death, and now comes the instruction about the Canaanites: "Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them.... Do not let them live in your land, or they will cause you to sin against me.... When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations... you must destroy them totally."

The first to be slaughtered were the Midianites. Next were the Amorites of Jericho, where the Israelites "devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it." Next came Ai, Makkedah, Hazor, Hebron, Debir, Anab... thousands upon thousands were put to the sword.

How do we know the Israelites didn't kill the Canaanites for their own selfish reasons and then invent a story about divine sanction? Because the Israelites, left to their own devices, would have exercised their preference to enslave their enemies, not utterly destroy them (see Dt 20:10-18).

Why did God want the Canaanites destroyed? "It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers." Six centuries earlier, God had told Abraham that his descendants would take possession of the land of Canaan, but he had also explained that the sin of the Canaanites "had not yet reached full measure." (In the meantime, the Israelites went down into Egypt.)

If God previously desired his people to kill, what allows us to think he doesn't today?

The history of the Israelites is a demonstration by God. Abraham was chosen by God to be the "father of many nations." Isaac and then Jacob (Israel) were made heirs of that same promise. God rescued the Israelites out of Egypt, gave them the law through Moses, and gave them possession of Canaan, "a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey." God gave the Israelites divine protection and direct guidance. He regarded them as his firstborn child, and he gave them a mother's love. Misconduct, whether internal (the Israelites) or external (the Canaanites), was dealt with severely. It was necessary for God's historical demonstration that his people live extremely strictly. Improper acts and attitudes were punishable by death.

The Jewish law was intricate and detailed. There were laws covering idolatry, the Sabbath, murder, sexual immorality, stealing, lying, coveting, food, clothing, haircuts, tattoos, holidays, ceremonial cleanliness, religious offerings, respect for authority, personal injury, slaves, kidnapping, foreign relations, war, judicial process, property, marriage, newlyweds, divorce, bloodlines, orphans and widows, the poor, tithing, usury, blasphemy, the occult, skin diseases, weights and measures, boundary stones, burial rites, livestock breeding, farming practices, crossdressing, roof design....

It is in the context of this strictness that God commanded his people to execute their fellow human beings, and it is here that we find cause to conclude that God will not require us to kill today.

The strictness of the ancient Israelites was part of God's demonstration: The Israelites were chosen by God, led by God, protected by God, governed by God, and given a very precise and comprehensive set of regulations. But what happened? Even given every advantage and opportunity, the people proved incapable of living righteously. King David admitted that "there is no one who does good, not even one." The prophet Isaiah confessed that "we all, like sheep, have gone astray."

It was God's intention that the history of the Israelites would demonstrate the necessity for Jesus to come and do what he did: "No one will be declared righteous in [God's] sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.... All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus" (Ro 3:20,23-24).

Killing immoral people was commanded under the law, and necessary under the law. Today we no longer live under that law: "You are not under law, but under grace.... We have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit" (6:14; 7:6).

There remains entirely too much strictness today amongst those claiming to be God's people. It is critical that we remember that "it is for freedom that Christ has set us free" (Gal 5:1).